Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Swissman from the sidelines

I can't say I entirely understand triathlon. I like finding my groove and going for it, and it seems rather anticlimactic to all of a sudden have to change sports, fiddle around with new equipment and start all over again. Plus, I've never enjoyed swimming laps.

I do understand the appeal of Swissman. Because Swissman is a (dare I say) epic triathlon. And I am a proponent of doing difficult, beautiful things, just to see if you can.

What follows is the story of Swissman. For once, I was not racing, but crewing an ironman with no aid stations other than those provided by the crew is almost as deep an involvement as actually racing.

Looking down on Gletsch from Furka pass, on the drive through of the bike course.

At 3 am on Saturday morning, Vibeke's alarm went off. I woke with a start, even though I didn't have to get up until 5:30 am. It was Swissman day. This was it.

"I figured out what I'll do!" Vibeke exclaimed manically as she pulled on her warm ups. "If I can just keep my knee in check up San Gottardo pass, I'll walk up Furka! I can do this!"

At this point a little backstory is required. Vibeke was have difficulties with her iliotibial band - common know as 'runner's knee' - which presented whenever she biked for many hours at a time. The Swissman bike course is 180 km long, with lots of hard climbs, and we were all anticipating knee troubles. The runner's knee seemed to be the bottleneck in completing the race. Vibeke had planned to get off the bike and stretch every so often to keep it in check, but we had no idea if this would help.

After she and David (her boyfriend and my co-supporter) left to go to the start of the swim course, I slept fitfully for another few hours. By 6 am, I was watching the end of the 4 km swim.

 

A double line of supporters showed the way from the edge of the water to the transition area. Swimmers emerged glistening from the water, and they seemed almost superhuman to me, like the seals-turned-women selkies of Irish myths. They gasped for air, struggled to find stable footing and charged towards the transition zone as they ripped off their swimming caps and goggles.


Vibeke appeared from the water around 6:20 am, and I ran with her up the now-dwindling aisle of people. I felt genuinely excited. In some ways, it seems like the swim in a triathlon is something that you just need to get over with. The real competition starts on the bike.

Vibeke in T1

 Vibeke left on her bike, and it all felt rather anticlimactic. David, Vibeke's boyfriend and my co-supporter, and I had over an hour before we were suppose to meet her in the first checkpoint in Bodio. We went back to the hotel and had a feverish breakfast, refreshing the tracking page every couple of minutes. She was cooking along, and by the time we zoom down the highway we were starting to fear that we might miss the first rendezvous.

Forty hectic minutes later, we arrived in Bodio less than 2 minutes before Vibeke. She tossed a bottle and we gave her a new one.

We headed up the road, passing again Vibeke quickly. All was rolling smoothly, and I felt immensely well-prepared. Our final chaotic pack-and-prep session the day before had resulted in a carefully packed car prepared to service our athlete's every needs. We had spreadsheets. We had thousands of calories of food. We were ready, to use the immortal words of Dickens, for anything from a baby to a rhinoceros.

The day-before-race-chaos. Note the waffle iron in the lower right.

Feeling so ready, and Vibeke not needing much help, left me feeling rather deflated. Luckily, we quickly spotted a target for our helpfulness. Another female racer, 'Kirsty' according to her bib, was standing by the road, talking on her cellphone.

We pulled over. "Everything allright?" David asked.

"Well, my supporter is lost," said Kirsty. Rather matter-of-factly, I might add, for something still in the first 100 km of an 180 km bike ride, currently with no support. We offered her water and some snacks, and resolved to help her until her supporter came.

The course began to snake upward. We were still in the foothills, but now truly headed for the high passes of the Alpes. Other supporters lounged at every stopping point, and we chatted with them. There was the South Africans, who seem to have brought there entire family to support one athlete. There was a Norwegian man who was supporting his twin brother, Roar. Roar wasn't far behind Vibeke but seemed to be struggling more on the initial climbs.

 
Vibeke below Ambri

I consulted my spreadsheet. Vibeke was making good time, and was almost precisely hitting her expected splits. Hopefully this would last.

 
A little further down the road we once again met Kirsty, who had found her supporter. Her supporter was apologising profusely.
 
"I'm sorry, I can even find my way around back at home!" she exclaimed as she plied Kirsty with food and drink.
 
The sun was high in the sky when we reached Ambri, and the base of the first big climb of the day: San Gottardo pass. The top of this pass marks the language divide between German and Italian Switzerland. We sent Vibeke, off with snacks and fresh water, and drove off to meet Vibeke at Tremola, which is halfway up San Gottardo.
 
The Swissman course goes up the old road up San Gottardo, a large portion of which is cobblestone, and hence great fun on a road bike. Here's a picture of Vibeke on the cobblestones a few days before the race:
 
Is this your idea of fun?
We waited for a while at Tremola, wondering how Vibeke was doing. Would her runner's knee kick in? Was she walking? As we weren't allowed to drive the old road, we couldn't know.
 
David, who is Swedish, in his Sweden shirt with a Norwegian flag, waiting near Tremola.
Vibeke was still looking strong at Tremola, and seemed to be enjoying the beautiful day and scenery. At least I hope she was, because that's totally what I would be doing.
 
Vibeke near Tremola
We zoomed off and arrived on top of San Gottardo with nearly 30 minutes to spare. I lounged in the sun, watching motor tourists. It seems trendy in Switzerland to get a fancy car, like a Lamborghini or a Porche and drive it as fast as you can over all of the high mountain passes. I would rather be on a bicycle.
 
Vibeke arrives on top of San Gottardo
On top of San Gottardo, David received the duty that I know every boyfriend (including my own, of course) enjoys most: massaging stiff muscles. Vibeke was in good spirits, but seemed really focused on the task at hand. There was still a lot of climbing left to give her knee troubles.
 
I chatted with Kirsty, whose supporter had missed her again in Tremola. She was calmly eating lasagna. I can't image how stressful it would be to miss my supporter - my meal ticket - all the time.  She seemed to be taking it really well.
 
Only at Swissman. David massages Vibeke in the middle of the road on top of San Gottardo pass.
Now fed, watered, and massaged, Vibeke layered up for the descent down to Hospental, where the next big climb of the day, Furka pass, was waiting.
 
We, of course, were at the bottom, ready to take her jacket, and feed and water more. 
 
The support team is ready...
...and the happy athlete arrives.
Furka pass is unique in that there is only one road up, and that it is very narrow and twisty. I drove down this road on the Thursday before the race, and I would different rank this number one in 'Terrifying Drives of My Life'.  Instead of a proper guard rail, there were basically just little cement mounds along the road. In some places there was clearly space for a car to skid between the mounds.
 
Luckily I was the designated navigator rather than driver on this stretch of the trip.
 
Vibeke on the way up Furka pass
We waited for nearly half an hour at the base of Furka so that we could pass Vibeke part way up the climb, in case her knee started to hurt. As we drove up, we were amazed at all the riders who we thought were right behind Vibeke. They weren't. Vibeke was climbing strong.
 
We passed her stretching in a pullout, but the knee, miraculously, was still OK. So we gunned it to the top. It was then I realized I was starting to get sleepy. It was mid afternoon, and I had been up since dawn. I lay down in the grass on Furka and tried to close my eyes in the sun.
 
It was no good. I was too jacked up about Vibeke arriving, and there were too many people to talk to. The South Africans were at the top with us.
 
The top of Furka is a little less touristy than San Gottardo
Vibeke arrived at the top to receive yet another massage. 
 
Vibeke gets massaged on Furka
Vibeke seemed truly tired now. "That last section was hard!" she exclaimed, "I was on my lowest gear, grinding away. Then the road got sort of flat and I was like, good, this will be easy, but it got all steep again."
 
David made the mistake of saying: "I think Grimsel is steeper."
 
The look on Vibeke's face was not one of joy. On the bright side, we were 119 km into the bike. The final big climb, Grimsel pass, was much small that the previous two. We were going to see this through.
 
While waiting on top of Grimsel, we were lucky enough to have time for a coffee. This coffee may have saved my day. 
 
Grimsel pass
The descent from Furka and the switchbacks up to Grimsel were layed out below us like toy train tracks.
 
The descent from Furka and the climb up Grimsel.
When Vibeke arrived, David was practically jumping with joy. "You did!" he exclaimed, "It's all cruising from here, your definitely going to do this!"
 
Vibeke was less sure, but increased her chance of success in Swissman from 50% to 80%. "This climb was much easier than I thought," she remarked. I was glad to hear that, as I had been scared that the fatigue I saw on Furka was really setting in.
 
The last 40 km of the bike were mostly downhill, and passed quickly. I prepared for T2 in the sweltering heat in Brienz, and David and I discussed the plan for the rest of the race.
 
I had some foot pain after Ultrabirken, so although I was originally supposed to run some with Vibeke it was decided that David would. He decided to start with her, which I thought was a bold move, but also really cute.
 
Vibeke in T2

David packed some snacks and a water bottle in his cycling jersey, and they were off. With, alas, no cell phone between the pair of them. I'm going to foreshadow a little here: no cell phone = big mistake.

Out of T2
I repacked the car, sweat dripping down my face in the heat as I stuffed Vibeke's bicycle in the back, and attempted to sort of the items of clothing and food that had been thrown around. It took me two wrong turns to get on the highway to the first checkpoint, but I was still there well before them. I took the time to fill some extra bottles. It was hot, and I figured Vibeke would want to get wet.
 
But she came into the checkpoint, and all she wanted was to change her shirt. And gels, not solid food. Unfortunately, we were low on gel. Again, bad move.
 
Vibeke taking a break at km 8.5 on the run
Vibeke asked me how fast she had to run to the checkpoint at 22 km to have time to run the rest of the race. I consulted by spreadsheet. "Eight kilometers an hour," I said. Another mistake - it wasn't good give her license to push to hard in the heat and fatigue of the day.
 
David and Vibeke came running into the checkpoint at 14 km, still looking pretty strong. Only I still didn't have gel among the wide variety of snacks I was carting around.
 
 
"Coke! Didn't we have coke?" Vibeke moaned.
 
"We're out," I said glumly.
 
"OK, Molly, could you just find us some Coke for the next checkpoint?" David asked.
 
I was a woman on a mission. I charged out of the checkpoint, and asked the nearest volunteer where I could find could at 7 pm on a Saturday. "You could try the restaurant," she said.
 
I don't know if Swiss restaurants usually sell big bottles of Coke. But I emerged, triumphant, with 3 liters of Coke. There would be Coke until the end of the race, if it was the last thing I did.
 
Almost at 22 km
When she arrived at 22 km, by now well behind the schedule we had set, Vibeke sat down and looked dead tired. We bartered some gels from another Norwegian racer, Stian. His heart's desire was Coke. Luckily, we were in surplus in this particular vehicle of calorie conveyance.
 
 
Vibeke left the aid station quickly. "I'll just start walking," she said. She looked determined, but I was starting to wonder if she would make the final cutoff in Grindelwald before the terminal climb up Kleine Scheidegg. I didn't, however, voice my doubts. The last things she needing was doubt.
 
A few kilometers later, the proverbial shit hit the fan, although I didn't know it at the time. The version of events I have heard is that Vibeke stopped to take a break, but then all of a sudden got very cold, like hypothermic. They started walking again, but we hadn't thought to send a backpack with David and there weren't any extra clothes to be had.
 
In the end, it got so bad Vibeke didn't feel like she could walk anymore. According to her, "I could barely open my eyes. I was never going to pass the medical check in Grindelwald." Whether it was the heat or insufficient calories is hard to know. Her race was over. 
 
Unfortunately, they were in between checkpoints with no cell phone. They stopped at a small house and were allowed to borrow a cell phone and a blanket. They tired to contact me, but I was driving and fixing things in Grindelwald, and didn't hear David's cell phone ring in the car. I had my own on me, which they of course didn't know the number to.
 
To make a long story short, a number of other racers reported to medical that Vibeke had 'collapsed'. Medical got a hold of me, and I freaked, and then David found me at the 28 km checkpoint. He had run up, and we drove down to the house were Vibeke was. We wanted to take her up to Grindelwald, but medical insisted on bringing an ambulance.
 
 
David and I may have been a little slap happy and overtired. We may have found the whole situation slightly funny by the time the ambulance arrived. Not that we would laugh in the face of such a serious situation. 
 
So that's how Vibeke started Swissman thinking that she would drop because of knee trouble on the bike, and ended up in a hospital in Interlaken after 25 km of the run. She was released around midnight. All of her blood work came back OK, but as the doctor told us, "what you were trying to do is not physiological." So true.
 
At least she had a good nap in the hospital! That's more than we can say
We dragged our tired selves up early the next day to make it to the awards ceremony on Kleine Scheidegg. The view from Kleine Scheidegg was incredible - not down to the valley so much, but up to the Eiger and high, rocky mountains and glaciers that surround it.
 
Vibeke was peppy, whereas David and I were completely wrecked. I want an IV drip next time I compete, too!

 

Kleine Scheidegg and its dramatic surroundings
Although it felt a bit odd to be at a finishers ceremony when we hadn't finished, it was fun to chat with all the other people we had met during the day. Kirsty had made it, and look fresh.
 
Vibeke, Kirsty, me and David at Kleine Scheidegg
 
We found the Norwegian twins too, although they were both sitting on the ground looking pretty tired. 
 
 
 

Even the Vegan Runners finished! But they have Vegan Powers (reference: Scott Pilgrim vs World. Great movie.)

 
All said and done, it was an epic journey, even though we technically didn't make. I feel like it's taking more time to recover from Swissman than Ultrabirken. Still, I'm up for another go! Supporting is kind of fun. Or made I have to become a triathlete - time to reconsider my swimming career.
 
- The Wild Bazilchuk

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